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innovative learning
Ava Liepins and Owen Ford, sixth graders at Kennedy Middle School in Natick, Massachusetts, demonstrate their drone-programming skills at the LearnLaunch Across Boundaries conference. Credit: Tara García Mathewson/The Hechinger Report

Ava Liepins took her first crack at coding last year as a fifth grader at Kennedy Middle School in Natick, Massachusetts. It was fine. The assignment was entirely online, and students learned the basics of coding at computers.

This year, the 11-year-old is way more enthusiastic, thanks to a unit in her instructional technology course that had her program a drone to fly through an obstacle course.

“I do like coding now,” Ava said. “This year we could interact with other people and do it in real life.”

Over the course of several days, Ava and her classmates worked in groups of three or four to plan out the coding steps required to get the drone from the obstacle course’s start to its finish. Once they finished writing the code, they tested it, taking note of where their drone’s flight path went wrong. Ava said her group refined their code about five times before they could get the drone through the hoop at the course’s finish line.

Ava’s teacher, Karin Cloutier, has found the project to be an effective way to introduce coding to students who are skeptical about how much they’ll like it.

“By doing it with the drones, it’s very hands-on,” she said. “They see the immediate result of their effort.”

Cloutier and Ava joined other students and teachers from all over Massachusetts at the recent LearnLaunch Across Boundaries conference in Boston as part of the Learning Innovation Showcase. School groups showed off how they are using technology in the classroom, how students are taking the lead on projects that aim to solve local or global problems, and otherwise experimenting with nontraditional learning experiences.

At Andover High School in Andover, Massachusetts, students presented the genetically engineered bacteria they designed to break down plastics from disposable water bottles into environmentally friendly compounds that degrade and actually support ocean life in the process. The project let students run with their passion to brainstorm solutions to environmental challenges.

The Dale Street School in Medfield has a modern take on the traditional book report. Fifth graders in Julie Lowerre’s class use programs including MakerSpace, Think Splats, Google Drawings, Booksnaps, Autodrawings and Breakouts to synthesize their reflections and critiques of books.

At Swampscott High School in Swampscott, students can get course credit for serving as their school’s tech support. They learn and develop their technology skills while solving real problems every day as working members of their school’s help desk.

Matthew Milton and Cam Dolbec, now seniors, spent an entire year on a project in the Nipmuc Regional High School’s Engineering 1 course. Their only constraint in choosing a direction for their project was that it had to relate to space travel. First, they and their groupmates did research about life in space to narrow down a topic. They decided to improve on the ready-to-eat meals for astronauts and spent the rest of the year designing a grill that could work in space, giving astronauts access to more diverse meal plans. The boys think the change could lead to improved morale in space and also better health among space travelers.

“One of the main things we learn is teamwork,” Matthew said of the project. He liked the challenge of tackling a year-long assignment and splitting up tasks among the group. In math, he said, students work alone, but in engineering, it’s all about working as a team.

Neither Matthew nor Cam plans to major in engineering in college next year, but Cam said the lessons from the engineering project transfer.

“Working in teams, talking about the projects – that’s important in a lot of jobs nowadays,” Cam said.

Using innovative assignments to better prepare students for the modern workplace was a common goal of schools participating in the showcase. And the bursting conference space proved they are not alone.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about innovative learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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